Like rivalries and gameday traditions, there are few things more central to college football than arbitrary power struggles. We rank teams that haven't played, evaluate recruits with impossible precision, devise formulas to defend our convictions about conference supremacy, and when national hierarchies aren't good enough we look inside the conference footprint and ask just which division is the Alpha Male.
There's no better example of this than in the former Big Twelve where the South Division schools won seven consecutive Championship Games over Northern schools earning them the title of top dog. Or in the SEC in 2010, where -- faced with the possibility of having to acknowledge that exactly 1/2 of their conference wasn't very good -- Southern apologists took to chanting "SEC West" at opposing fans, a nod to the division in which five of the league's six ranked teams resided.
I don't blame them. After all, college football is so much more about who you are than what you've actually done. Which begs the question, will either of the newly-minted Big Ten divisions dominate in 2011? I make the call, using nothing but last year's performances, offseason personnel changes, and wholly subjective insights. In other words, hard science as far as the BCS is concerned.
But first, let's clear one thing up. Unlike the ill-fated marriage that was the former Big Twelve, the Big Ten deliberately eschewed geographic cohesion in favor of competitive balance when it designed its divisional alignment. In other words our divisions are supposed to be even. But is that easier said than done? Let's see if either side will have bragging rights in 2011.
Legends v. Leaders
To pit the divisions against each other, I've borrowed from the tried and true Big Ten/ACC Challenge formula of ranking the teams in each division, and then putting No. 1 against No. 1, No. 2 against No. 2 and so on and so forth... To determine the pecking order within each division I used each team's finish in conference in 2010 and overall record/final BCS rank as tiebreakers. In Nebraska's case, I used their Big Twelve data, as well as the "eyeball" test.
Here's how the teams in each division stack up:
1. Michigan State (7-1)
2. Nebraska (6-2)*
3. Iowa (4-4)
4. Northwestern (3-5)
5. Michigan (3-5)
6. Minnesota (2-6)
* Big Twelve standings.
Ranking the Legends Division was pretty straightforward, with the only difficult determinations being the decision to elevate Michigan State over Nebraska for the Number 1 spot and to put Northwestern over Michigan. Although you can make a great argument that the Huskers are the better team from top to bottom, in the end I couldn't look past their four losses (compared to Michigan State's 2). Additionally, MSU's embarassing showing in the Capital One Bowl is mitigated by Nebraska's lame effort in the Holiday Bowl. Northwestern/Michigan was a tougher determination, because both teams ended the season with identical conference and overall records and on similar 3-game slides. Ultimately, I followed the computers and gave the Wildcats the nod. It certainly didn't hurt that they were actually competitive in the postseason.
6. Indiana (1-7)
Again, there was some competition at the top -- and I'm sure at least some of you will disagree with my decision to put Ohio State at No. 1. After all, the last time we saw the Buckeyes and the Badgers meet head to head Wisconsin dominated, and the fact that two of its three leading rushers are back is bad news for Buckeye fans. That being said, I have to follow the selections rubric, and Ohio State finished 2010 with a better overall record (12-1 vs. 11-2) and a higher rank in the BCS Standings (No. 5 vs. No. 7). The only other dilemma on the Leaders side was between Illinois and Penn State. Both finished 2010 with identical conference and overall records, and neither ended up in the extended BCS Standings. Because of the absence of clear data one way or another, I went with the head-to-head result, a 33-13 Illinois win.
Now that we have the intra-divisional pecking order sorted out, let's get to the comparisons:
It's the biggest matchup of the inter-divisional challenge on paper, and we won't have to wait long to see how it plays out on the field, as the Spartans visit Columbus on October 1st. Although the Spartans ended 2010 with their pants around their ankles, they're coming off one of their best seasons in decades. Ohio State, meanwhile, is thrilled to have the SEC monkey off its back. Both teams return a modest number of starters (13), including starting quarterbacks Kirk Cousins and Terrelle Pryor, but Pryor is a bit of a wild card here, since he's currently slated to sit out the MSU game along with five other starters as part of a five game suspension for receiving improper benefits.
Here's my dilemma. I think Ohio State is the better team here, and my gut says they'll win more games in the Big Ten than MSU. That being said, I think there's a good chance Ohio State loses to the Spartans when they play head-to-head if the Buckeyes are forced to take the field without the suspended players.
Because this inquiry is all about "perception," and Ohio State is bound to make more waves than Michigan State nationally I'm going to give the nod to the Leaders Division here. It doesn't hurt that I think the length of the suspensions will be reduced from five to four games on appeal to match the punishment of Georgia's A.J. Green for similar conduct last year.
It's a close call and reasonable minds can disagree, but for now Legends 0, Leaders 1.
Legends No. 2 (Nebraska) vs. Leaders No. 2 (Wisconsin)
Nebraska and Wisconsin rank 109th and 113th nationally for returning starters, so it would be easy to conclude that both teams will struggle early in 2011 as new players learn the ropes. That being said, consistency in college football is more about quality than quantity and both the Huskers and the Badgers boast a number of returning key playmakers. For Nebraska, that's Quarterback Taylor Martinez, and seven defensive starters including star linebacker Lavonte Davis. For Wisconsin, that's the powerful running tandem of James White and Montee Ball. Although Wisky will continue to move the chains playing smashmouth ball, it's not clear how the Badgers will replace play-action phenom Scott Tolzien. Because Wisconsin is without a proven signalcaller I give a slight edge to Nebraska.
Legends 1, Leaders 1
Legends No. 3 (Iowa) vs. Leaders No. 3 (Illinois)
The Illini ended 2010 on a high note with a commanding victory over Baylor in the Texas Bowl. Ron Zook returns 13 starters including quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase and offensive tackle Jeff Allen. Unfortunately, he'll be without the services of running back Mikel Leshoure who left early for the NFL and graduating defensive standouts Clay Nurse, Corey Liuget, and Martez Wilson. Still, Iowa might be worse off, losing practically every proven skill position starter on the offensive side of the ball save for wide receiver Marvin McNutt, offensive tackle Reily Reiff, and running back Marcus Coker. The good news for the Hawkeyes is that their schedule is pretty favorable in 2011. Aside from road trips to State College and Lincoln, the home slate is extremely manageable. If Iowa gels early, I think they'll manage a respectable 2011. And although I hate to rain on Ron Zook's parade, I just don't see the Illini putting it together from start to finish. So...
Legends 2, Leaders 1
Legends No. 4 (Northwestern) vs. Leaders No. 4 (Penn State)
When Northwestern has Dan Persa they're the most exciting -- if not unpredictable -- team in the league. They'll greet 2011 with 17 returning starters, including 9 on the offensive side of the ball. Still, Penn State's no slouch in the talent department. Joe Paterno returns 16 experienced players, including quarterback Rob Bolden, wide receiver Derek Moye and linebacker Michael Mauti. Although I fully expect Northwestern to stir up the pot in the Legends Division, this may be the most balanced team Joe Pa has fielded since 2008. Accordingly...
Legends 2, Leaders 2
Legends No. 5 (Michigan) vs. Leaders No. 5 (Purdue)
There's only one team in the country (Vanderbilt) with more returning starters than Michigan (20). And there's no question that the Wolverines can be quick and cunning on the offensive side of the ball. The question now is whether Brady Hoke can coach up a defense that's been miserable at best and pitiful at worst for three consecutive seasons. I like Hoke's chances in the long run, but for now I'm going with a Boilermaker squad that returns 18 promising starters at full strength.
Legends 2, Leaders 3
Legends No. 6 (Minnesota) vs. Leaders No. 6 (Indiana)
Both of these teams made promising hires this offseason, and I fully expect Jerry Kill and Kevin Wilson to raise the profile of their institutions in the long term. As far as 2011 goes, even though both teams return 15 starters I think Kill inherited a much better talent base, particularly on the defensive side of the ball. The simple fact that interim head coach Jeff Horton was able to coax 2 conference wins out of a team Tim Brewster left for dead shows that with the right leadership the Gophers can compete. And although Indiana should have one of the best statistical offenses in the conference in 2011, I suspect their struggles on defense will continue to hold them back.
Legends 3, Leaders 3
Conclusion: Much to the chagrin of the mainstream media, it looks on paper like the Big Ten will benefit from a fairly balanced divisional lineup in 2011. Although the Leaders division might have a slight edge at the top, the Legends Division should bring up the rear. Put the two together, and we have a recipe for an exciting fall in the Midwest.